Gundam NT leans – and falls over

It’s funny how I’ve written about how Dragon Ball Super: Broly has managed to succeed by leaning into, essentially, the Dragon Ballness of Dragon Ball but now find myself criticizing Gundam NT for attempting to tap into the Gundamness of the Gundam franchise. It’s about understanding what works and what doesn’t. It’s about understanding what fans actually enjoy and what doesn’t – despite the fact that some writers might want to go in that direction.

Gundam NT, also known as Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative, is the first theatrical film released in the Gundam franchise in eight years and the first film from the original Universal Century (UC) timeline in 27 years. You could say that Gundam fans were excited about this release. And this was a huge deal in America because this was the first big Gundam theatrical release that we’ve gotten. I’m not sure if Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz ever got a release in theaters or how wide that release was, but this seems more momentous.

NT continues the storyline of the popular Gundam Unicorn OVA series that was surprisingly released on Netflix last year. According to the mini-documentary shown in the theater preceding the film, it’s not only continuing that storyline but moving the franchise into the next century of the UC. The story takes place in 0097, meaning future stories will be taking place in 0100 and beyond. It’s worth noting that there are already a couple of animated stories that taken place within that timeline: Gundam F-91 and V Gundam. Since F-91 takes place in 0127, there is quite a bit of space to fill.

Before I get into what went wrong with the movie, I want to note that I enjoyed it. It has a decent story and a decent animation. The characters are likeable, despite the fact that we don’t get to spend enough time with them. The mecha designs are nice, despite the fact that they’re pretty derivative of what we’ve already seen in the series. And, hey, it was Gundam on a big screen.

So why didn’t I love it? Why are so many other fans expressing disappointment about the film? Where did Sunrise misstep with what should have been a slam dunk? Well, Gundam is a franchise that officially turns 40 years old this April. There have been many successes and many failures over the decades. While this seems to speak to the endurance of the franchise, which has indeed died twice now, it also should suggest that there were many lessons to be learned.

There have been many criticisms of Gundam over the years. There were always lingering issues, and they seem to have come to a head with NT. While Dragon Ball has encountered criticisms itself over its 30+ years, it discovered where to lean in and where not to. NT leans in, but it seems to lean in on the criticisms rather than successes of the entire franchise.

Fans need to be historians to know what’s going on -or- It’s too self-referential for anyone but the hardcore to understand

I was considering also calling this section, “Gundam is too up its own ass for its own good.” While not delicate, it probably would have gotten the point across more clearly. The main thrust of the Gundam franchise is the UC, which has four television series (not counting the Unicorn adaptation), three films (not counting the live-action G-Saviour), 8 OVA and internet entries, and countless manga and novels. There are alternate universes in the franchise to consider, but they usually go out of their way to reference the UC in some fashion because it’s what gives the franchise life. And that’s a lot of content on its own.

Gundam NT, I think, is meant to be a standalone film while also functioning as a sequel. At least, most films are meant to stand alone. But the film hits viewers pretty immediately with unexplained content. Minovsky particles and normal suits are commonly understood to some degree by many Gundam viewers, but no one-off the street would know what they are. Then there are all of the flashback scenes which fans were grateful to see (anything related to Z Gundam makes me happy, personally) but stood out as old footage to newbies. And then mentions of Char and mobile suits that referenced previous mobile suits. At least it’s easily surmised that a mobile suit is piloted mecha and a Gundam is a specific kind of mobile suit.

That’s just the terminology. The story itself comes across pretty clearly. Yet, for it to make any sense, one really needs to know the timeline. Like the colony drop at the beginning of the film, it helps to know that it precedes even the original Mobile Suit Gundam series. It suggests that these new characters have been there all along. Then one of them is taken in by a character named Stephanie Luio, whom I recognized but couldn’t quite place. She has a minor role in Z Gundam, the second ever produced Gundam series. She’s treated as important, but it’s hard for new fans to see that. And this is without getting into the cameo at the very end of the film that, if we’re being honest, didn’t even need to be there and felt like it only existed to toss a bone to fans of Unicorn.

Gundam series only exist to sell merchandise

Well, yes. Anime exists to sell products. Anime is absolutely art, but it’s not made to be art. Anime is always selling something. It could just be its own video releases, or it could be manga or video games. Gundam made a name for itself by selling plastic models. Gundam is all about selling people cool stuff that takes up shelf and desk space.

It can be taken too far, though. We learned that in the 90’s when Bandai decided that having one to four Gundams in a series wasn’t enough and created alternative universes that started each series with a minimum of four Gundams to sell. There were three series in a row, released annually, like this that ended in what was dubbed “Gundam fatigue.” This was the second death of Gundam. (The first was the cancellation of the original series due to its failure to find an audience at the time.)

So the storyline of Gundam NT, the connecting point to Unicorn, is to catch a Gundam mcguffin. This mcguffin is the Phenex Gundam, the never before mentioned third unit in the same production line as the Unicorn Gundam – which is never used but shown on-screen a few times. The Phenex previously had a model released in stores, but there are some changes made for the film that required another version of the mobile suit to be released to the consumers. The Gundam produced to capture the Phenex is the titular Narrative Gundam, which is a skeletal-looking mobile suit that slots into three different “packs” or armaments that are, unsurprising, sold as different model kits. The enemy in the film pilots the MSN-06S-2 Sinanju Stein, which I only mention by full name because that is how it is differentiated from the Sinanju Stein that appeared in Gundam Unicorn. Well, that and the fact that this one is gray instead of red. That mobile suit slots into the mobile armor Neo Zeong II, which is also a gray repaint of something from Gundam Unicorn. In the end, the mobile suit piloted by the cameo pilot from Unicorn is a custom Silver Bullet, meaning it’s another repaint of something that appeared in Unicorn. There wasn’t much to be seen here.

And I could describe the units very easily without mentioning the names of the characters. Take that for what you will.

Newtypes ruin stories by being space magic

My favorite series in all of Gundam is easily Z Gundam. While a fantastic “war is hell” kind of story, it introduces to the franchise the Bio-Sensor. This was an interface for Newtypes that could enhance and weaponize their psychic abilities. For example, the main character’s interfacing with the Zeta Gundam through the Bio-Sensor was able to increase the length and power of the mobile suit’s beam saber by several magnitudes. I blame this for the next evolution of the technology that would appear in the film Char’s Counterattack and subsequently Gundam Unicorn and Gundam NT, the Psychoframe. This takes the properties of the Bio-Sensor and literally installs it into the framework of mobile suits at the atomic level. This makes the suits more magical.

Before any old school Gundam fans get into it, I understand that this all is derived off of the Psychommu technology introduced toward the end of the original Mobile Suit Gundam. This was also an interface that allowed psychic control, but it did not enhance mobile suits (and mobile armors) so much as it allowed brain waves to control additional drones (bits) for attack. The Psychommu was not a deus ex machina to overcome impossible situations and break the rules of the world. It just let characters shoot more things.

The idea of a Newtype is actually pretty cool. Newtypes are the next evolution of mankind after generations grow up in space. They have increased empathy, slight telepathy, greater intuition, and better reflexes. Not only does this give greater reason for some characters to be better pilots than others, it also ratchets up the drama by letting characters sense each other and even communicate directly. What was uncommon was larger supernatural phenomena.

The end of Gundam Unicorn has a few supernatural events, inclusive of ghosts and a super powerful shield that managed to block a giant laser. The goal of certain individuals in Gundam NT is to harness the power of Newtypes to conquer death itself. In fact, that had already been done by the pilot of the Phenex Gundam. The entire story is built around the belief one character has that the end will justify the means – if death can be conquered, then it does not matter who gets stomped on along the way. Which would make for a great story if they were more explicit about it other than giving an otherwise sympathetic an out for the terrible things she does.

But then there are long psychic conversations that take place in the present but also the past. Y’see, because Newtypes are able to transcend time. So on the battlefield there can be these long conversations about the purpose of living without actually affecting the action. Just the viewers.

Gundam is misogynist -or- Women exist for men in the Gundam multiverse

 

Kamille Bidan and Women of Zeta Gundam

The only time I had ever heard of Gundam being misogynist was in discussions of Victory Gundam. Yoshiyuki Tomino, mastermind behind the UC, created a TV series in which an all-female squadron of mobile suit pilots is introduced and almost immediately slaughtered while other female characters are generally histrionic and unstable. The criticism is left aimed at that show, and occasionally fans. (There are hatedoms for female characters in the franchise – most notably the lead female in Gundam Wing.)

However, I ended up thinking about it more after a friend of mine after the movie asked me if there had ever been a lead female protagonist in a Gundam movie or series. The answer is no. Women have always been supporting characters and rarely even the primary antagonists. Gundam exists pretty consistently as a power fantasy for young boys. Even if the outcome is fatal for the protagonist, the story is still about how that male character was able to overcome everything and make an impact.

So what do women get to do in the series? They get to act as devices to motivate the protagonists in some way. And die. Sometimes those two things happen at the same time. The death of a woman can make the protagonist take the situation more seriously, for example. Or, when you bring Newtype powers into it, the death of a woman can bring about a power-up for the protagonist. But the important thing is that women enhance the men somehow.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t positive, strong portrayals of women in the franchise. Those are the characters make note of in defense of Gundam. But they aren’t the only ones. They’re just the ones that we as fans pay more attention to because it makes us feel better about our shows. It’s OK to accept the flaws, too.

Gundam NT is flawed. I haven’t talked about the characters much because they weren’t relevant until now. The film is about three friends who went to school together before the colony drop that sparked the One Year War. One of the friends, Rita, is a powerful Newtype who was able to foresee the catastrophe and shared the experience of it with her friends Jona and Michelle. They are thus dubbed the Miracle Children and experimented on by the Titans. Eventually Rita is outed as the Miracle Child while Jona and Michelle go their separate ways. All this time, Jona is trying to get back to Rita, whose soul is lost in the Phenex. Michelle, meanwhile, has been trying to make amends for how she managed to get out of the situation they were stuck in. She felt guilty for leaving her friends behind.

Sounds compelling, until the end of the movie. Rita may have brought her friends into the situation due to her feelings for Jona. And she foresaw a situation in which she would be able to bring him into the Phenex to protect him. Michelle felt guilty for leaving her friends behind, but ultimately she wanted to make it up to Jona because of her feelings for him. While she ends up transcending thanks to the psychoframe, she and Rita both make it a point to say that they wanted Jona to live because he is important to them. They die and protect him. Because they are female characters in Gundam who exist for a man.

There is another female character on the other side of the battlefield. She plays the role of the sympathetic enemy character. Naturally, she gets shot and killed by the villain in a scene that unnecessarily reiterates just how bad of a guy he is. Y’know, after he went to a neutral space colony and caused the deaths of many innocents. She was used as a device. Poorly.

Is there anything else to say?

It almost sounds like I dislike Gundam, which is funny because it’s a franchise I’m always excited to see add more entries. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the vast majority of anime produced. Interesting stories and designs in a futuristic world. I’m signed on for that.

What I’ve classified as misogyny I can get past because I don’t think it’s meant to disparage women. I think it’s more thoughtlessness than anything else. (Which is not an excuse but more an attempt at understanding.) The female characters are otherwise treated as full characters with nuance, inner lives, and motivations. They are able to make major decisions themselves, showing agency within the narrative. They are important. And they tend to avoid being sexualized to the extent of female characters in other series with a male target audience. No unnecessary short skirts or panty shots to titillate certain kinds of viewers. There are some characters who cross the line, but overall these characters aren’t intended to sell figurines or body pillows. As a married man with two daughters, Gundam series don’t usually set off my Spidey-sense for grossness.

I love Gundam, but Gundam NT came up short. I look back on the film and my favorite moments came before and after the film itself. As I already mentioned, there was a mini-documentary preceding the film, and I found that truly interesting. I would love to have a feature-length documentary on Gundam sometime. After the credits of the film was a teaser for the next Gundam theatrical release, Hathaway’s Flash. The character design was more refined and the animation was better than NT‘s. However, it’s going to be a total up its own ass story about a character introduced in Z Gundam as the son of the ship’s captain from the original Mobile Suit Gundam. There’s going to be a lot of history here, but from what I remember about the brief summary I read of the novel, there’s going to be a lot more there to make the film (or series of films) stand on its own better than NT.

All that really needs to be said is that there were a lot of hopes going into Gundam NT, but it failed to be a showcase of what makes Gundam great.

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